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General Committees

Debated on Wednesday 16 June 2021

Delegated Legislation Committee

Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2021

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Dr Rupa Huq

Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)

Harris, Rebecca (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Hendrick, Sir Mark (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)

Holmes, Paul (Eastleigh) (Con)

Jardine, Christine (Edinburgh West) (LD)

† Jones, Sarah (Croydon Central) (Lab)

Keeley, Barbara (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab)

Lloyd, Tony (Rochdale) (Lab)

Mak, Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Malthouse, Kit (Minister for Crime and Policing)

Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Morris, James (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Owatemi, Taiwo (Coventry North West) (Lab)

† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)

Thomson, Richard (Gordon) (SNP)

Throup, Maggie (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Zoe Backhouse, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 16 June 2021

[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]

Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2021

Before we begin, I remind Members to observe social distancing and to sit only in the assigned places with a tick—as everyone is doing, I think. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has deemed that masks should be worn in Committee—apart from by me, because I might need to speak at any second. Our Hansard colleagues will be most grateful if Members send their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2021.

It is a great pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Dr Huq.

The draft order was laid before the House on 25 March. I thank the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for its advice, which has helped to inform the order before the Committee for consideration. To that end, the proposed amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 follows the ACMD’s advice, published on 29 April last year, about three benzodiazepines.

The three benzodiazepines under consideration are flualprazolam, flunitrazolam and norfludiazepam. The ACMD recommended controlling all three substances under class C of the 1971 Act, owing to their potential harm and the evidence for the prevalence of the drugs in the UK. This will be the first additional control of benzodiazepines under the Act since the control of 16 benzos in May 2017; those are also controlled under class C of the 1971 Act.

Benzodiazepine medicines with specific uses may be prescribed by clinicians, but the matter before us today is the consideration of illicit benzodiazepines, with no known medicinal benefits in this country. High dependency is often associated with benzodiazepine use, together with severe withdrawal symptoms for even short-term use. When combined with other “recreational” drugs, most particularly opioids and other central nervous depressants, there is an increased risk of mortality, which has contributed to a significant number of drug-related deaths each year.

Data from the national programme on substance abuse deaths showed that there were 5,740 benzodiazepine-related deaths in England between 2006 and 2015. Just under 4% of those recorded benzodiazepines as the only compounds implicated in the cause of death, which suggests the frequency with which they are associated with poly drug use.

I thought it might help the Committee if I explained a bit more about the specific details related to each of the three benzodiazepines—in particular their prevalence in the UK, which has a significant effect on the consideration of harm. Beginning with flualprazolam, the ACMD’s report states that, as of March 2020, as recorded by regional statistical agencies, there have been 12 flualprazolam-associated deaths in the UK. The ACMD report also cites the report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction on flualprazolam in March 2019, which outlines deaths with confirmed exposure to the compound in 24 reported cases in Sweden and two in Finland. In eight of those cases, flualprazolam was cited as a contributory or possibly contributory factor.

On flunitrazolam, the ACMD’s report states that it is likely that the potency of the compound is greater than that of flunitrazepam, otherwise known as Rohypnol, which is highly potent and controlled as a class C drug under the 1971 Act. The report goes on to confirm that between 2014 and October 2019, a small number of seizures have been made at the UK border and that small-scale seizures of a mixture of tablets and powder have been identified in Germany in 2016 and Denmark in 2017.

Norfludiazepam has been identified twice in the UK. Both occasions took place in 2017, once from a police seizure and once by TICTAC, a drug identification provider. Further afield, there were small-scale seizures in Germany in 2016, Sweden in 2017 and Norway in 2018. PostScript360, an organisation providing treatment for those undergoing withdrawal from benzodiazepines highlighted anecdotal reporting of the use or purchase of norfludiazepam.

The ACMD report recommended not only the control of these three drugs under class C of the 1971 Act, but that they be placed in schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 and part 1, schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs (Designation) (England, Wales and Scotland) Order 2015, given that the drugs have no known medicinal benefits in the UK.

Should this order be approved, the Government intend that a further statutory instrument, subject to the negative resolution procedure, come into force at the same time as this order. That would be 28 days after the date when the Order in Council is made. That further instrument would make the necessary amendments for the 2001 regulations and the 2015 order. The approval by Parliament of that order would make it unlawful to possess, supply, produce, import or export these drugs, except under a Home Office licence for research. The maximum sentence for possession of a class C drug is two years in prison and unlimited fine or both, while for supply it is up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.

We all know the destructive effects that illegal drugs have on not only the lives of those who take them, but their families and wider societies. The ACMD’s advice makes clear that these benzodiazepines are harmful, and I trust that I have made a clear case for their control today.

I give a real-life example. You will remember, Dr Huq, that early last year the National Crime Agency undertook an operation called Venetic, which revealed a variety of information about organised criminal gangs producing and importing drugs into the UK. As part of that operation, the NCA managed to bust open a factory in Kent, where they discovered 27 million street benzo tablets, which had been manufactured and were specifically targeted at Scotland—27 million is quite a lot of tablets for each and every Scot. The impact of the drugs, particularly north of the border, is very significant and I hope that the order today will contribute to their control.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I thank the Minister for his remarks. The Opposition support the proposals of this instrument, which brings three benzodiazepines—the compounds known as flualprazolam, flunitrazolam and norfludiazepam, under control as class C drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We are committed to working with the Government, the police and other public bodies to tackle drug misuse, strengthen controls on dangerous substances and widen the availability of treatments to prevent overdose deaths and get drug users clean. Clearly, where drugs cause harm, they must be classified and enforcement action must be taken.

On the three benzodiazepines covered by this order, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs provides some statistics, some of which the Minister highlighted, and background information. On flualprazolam, the report states:

“In the UK, several identifications of the compound have been reported from seizures and samples analysed by National Crime Agency…as well as anecdotal reports of use from clients in receipt of treatment from Postscript360, a Bristol-based charity”—

the Minister referred to it—

“providing treatment solutions and referral pathways for people with benzodiazepine dependence. This indicates significant availability of this compound in UK markets…As of March 2020, there have been 12 flualprazolam-associated deaths in the UK recorded by regional statistical agencies...In October 2019, an unknown number of deaths were reported in Stockton-on-Tees where flualprazolam was the only psychoactive substance present.”

The report goes on:

“Norfludiazepam has been notified in the UK from a police seizure of 14 pale-blue tablets in March 2017 and one sample analysis by TICTAC”,

which the Minister referred to,

“in December 2017. Small-scale seizures of a mixture of tablets and powders have also been”

identified in several other European countries. However, no deaths related to norfludiazepam have been reported in the UK as of March 2020.

On flunitrazolam, the report goes on,

“there is limited information about doses, effects, safety and tolerability available. However, based on its structural similarity to other triazolo-benzodiazepines, it is likely that the potency of flunitrazolam is greater than of the already highly potent flunitrazepam”,

which is Rohypnol.

“As of March 2020, no deaths or other harms associated with flunitrazolam have been reported in the UK. However, the specialist benzodiazepine charity, Postscript360, have reported that clients in receipt of treatment for benzodiazepine dependency had anecdotally reported either the use or purchase of flunitrazolam.”

Adding these drugs to the class C list is important, but it must come alongside a robust preventive approach to drugs misuse.

While the three benzodiazepines relevant to this SI are of no medicinal use, it is important to mention the issue of prescribed drug dependence in the UK, as general benzodiazepines are prescribed in the UK. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs 2020 report states:

“Prescribing of benzodiazepines by General Practitioners in the UK has been discouraged and has fallen progressively in recent years. Prescription items issued in primary care in England fell from 16.3 million in 2015-16 to 14.9 million in 2018-19”.

Despite the numbers falling, that is still a very large amount. The report says that

“deaths where a benzodiazepine was implicated have increased over the past decade across the UK...consistent with an increased role of illicitly manufactured benzodiazepines. There is evidence of this in Scotland”—

which the Minister referred to—

“where ‘street’ or unlicensed benzodiazepines were involved in 85% of the 792 deaths in 2018 where a benzodiazepine was implicated, while medicinal ‘prescribed’ benzodiazepines were reported in only 30%”.

It is important that the Government strengthen withdrawal services so that those with addictions to prescribed drugs can get the support they need to manage it. The Government’s explanatory note states:

“A full impact assessment has not been produced for this instrument as no, or no significant, impact on the private, voluntary or public sectors is foreseen.”

However, making these benzodiazepines controlled drugs should prompt the Government to consider the private, voluntary and public sectors, and to take preventive action to tackle the use of these drugs through advertising, educational campaigns about the dangers of drugs misuse, support for voluntary support services and investment in drug treatment services.

Since David Cameron’s Government took drug treatment services out of ring-fenced NHS funding, they are now a postcode lottery and have faced successive cuts by Government. A lack of proper drug treatment services risks driving up acquisitive crime and drug lines. The Government have introduced Project ADDER—addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement and recovery—which we welcome, but this kind of investment is needed across the country, not just in five areas.

We welcome this statutory instrument, but I want to take this opportunity to remind the Minister of his Government’s record on tackling the problem of illegal drug use. Illegal drugs are a huge issue in this country, and the Government must do more to tackle the problem. A Home Office review concluded that drugs were

“a major driver of the national increases in serious violence over recent years”,

mainly as the crack and heroin markets were taken over by county lines gangs. Part 1 of Dame Carol Black's 2020 drugs review provided detailed analysis of the challenges around drug supply and demand, and noted:

“The illicit drugs market is big business, worth an estimated £9.4 billion a year. Around 3 million people took drugs in England and Wales last year, with around 300,000 in England taking the most harmful drugs (opiates and/or crack cocaine).

Drug deaths have reached an all-time high and the market has become much more violent”,

with the total costs of drugs to society estimated at

“over £19 billion, which is more than twice the value of the market itself.”

Most illegal drugs consumed in the UK

“are produced abroad. The supply of drugs has been shaped mostly by international forces, the activities of Organised Crime Groups and advances in technology.”

The report continues:

“The heroin and crack cocaine retail market has been overtaken by the county lines model, which is driving increased violence in the drugs market and the exploitation of young people and vulnerable drug users.”

The Government’s failure to dismantle organised criminal gangs and the supply of drugs has led to a rampant rise in illegal drug use. The National Crime Agency’s latest annual plan, for 2020-21, revealed that more than 3,000 deal lines were identified in 2019, of which 800 to 1,000 lines are estimated to be active during a given month. The Children’s Commissioner for England has estimated that 27,000 children are gang members, and modelling done by Crest identified 213,000 vulnerable children. The strongest and most dangerous drugs are becoming more accessible, and the drug networks are driving violence and child criminal exploitation.

The Government are failing to get a grip on the misuse of the most serious drugs, including class As. Class A drug use was on a downward trend between 1996 and 2011. Since then, class A drug use has increased every year, and the Home Office’s own research admitted that it was slow to notice rising levels of crack use beginning in 2013-14.

Despite drug use and violence increasing, the Government have drastically cut spending on treatment by underfunding local government budgets as well as central Government funding. The Government have not provided the necessary resources for drug treatment and recovery, which has meant that they have been unable to break the cycle of drug misuse and offending. In May this year, we passed the 50th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Research by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation has pointed out that when that Act was first introduced by Prime Minister Heath, there were under 100 drug-related deaths a year in England and Wales; now, there are 2,883. Our country is in the middle of a drugs crisis. Legislation that says, “Using or selling these harmful drugs is a criminal offence” is really important, but we must also have a health approach from this Government, so that people understand the risks and can get the help they need to deal with addiction problems.

We all know the terrible impact that drugs can have on individuals, families and communities. Increasing enforcement of drug misuse and stamping out the organised criminal drugs gangs that drive and profit from it is incredibly important, but it is only one part of the solution. The other must be drug treatment and preventive services to properly break the cycle of drug misuse.

The hon. Member for Croydon Central is nothing if not persistent in her desire to look backwards rather than forwards. As she knows, we have been very assertive in our approach to drugs over the past two years. We are having some success, particularly on county lines and in other areas, and she will have seen that in the last spending round we secured significant amounts of extra money for drug treatment. I am very pleased that she mentioned the ADDER projects as the progenitor: those were broadly my idea, along with Blair Gibbs, who was No. 10’s crime and justice advisor at the time. It is a model of operation that we hope in time to take to other parts of the country, but we first need to prove that we can shift those appalling numbers in those parts of the country.

As you will know, Dr Huq, we will have an entire Backbench Business debate tomorrow on exactly this subject—the Misuse of Drugs Act—so I do not propose to rehearse some of the issues that the hon. Lady has raised in her response. I will just say that I am grateful for the support of the ACMD in outlawing these benzodiazepines. It looked at 10 other compounds, but did not find evidence that substantiated their being made illegal, although they will of course be covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which was passed by this House just a few years ago.

Finally, given the devastating impact of street benzos—as they are called—in Scotland in particular, I am disappointed that no representative from the Scottish National party is here today. Drug deaths in Scotland are off the scale—easily the worst in western Europe, if not the developed world. The legislative control of drugs remains an important measure in the fight against this societal evil, and I am grateful to the Committee for supporting it.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.

Draft Public Procurement (international trade agreements) (amendment) regulations 2021

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mark Pritchard

Abbott, Ms Diane (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

† Anderson, Fleur (Putney) (Lab)

Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)

Davies, David T. C. (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales)

Fovargue, Yvonne (Makerfield) (Lab)

Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

Harman, Ms Harriet (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab)

Harris, Rebecca (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Hollinrake, Kevin (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

† Lopez, Julia (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office)

Mak, Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Morden, Jessica (Newport East) (Lab)

† Morris, James (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)

Thomson, Richard (Gordon) (SNP)

Tomlinson, Michael (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Wafia Zia, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 16 June 2021

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Draft Public Procurement (International Trade Agreements) (Amendment) Regulations 2021

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Public Procurement (International Trade Agreements) (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. This statutory instrument will ensure that domestic public procurement regulations give legal effect to the UK’s international procurement obligations—specifically, those covered in the UK third party international trade agreements signed with non-EU countries that had an agreement with the EU before exit day, 31 January 2020. Therefore, when contracting authorities carry out public procurements, that could be covered by an international agreement. If so, suppliers from those countries are required to be treated no less favourably than suppliers in the UK. It also means that UK businesses will continue to benefit from access to public procurement markets overseas.

We have an agreement with the devolved Administrations for this instrument to be laid on behalf of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That will ensure legislative efficiency and consistency across the four nations.

We are implementing this change because the UK Government, following our exit from the EU, have, as far as possible, committed to providing continuity of existing trade and investment relationships with our existing international partners. We have already helped to ensure a continuation of global procurement through the World Trade Organisation’s Government procurement agreement, following the UK’s accession to the agreement as an independent member, and we have laid separate legislation to implement that. Without this instrument, the UK would not be able to implement its international procurement obligations in trade agreements with third countries. That would leave the UK Government open to legal challenge and damage our reputation as an international trading partner.

This instrument will be made using powers set out in section 2 of the Trade Act 2021. The instrument will create within existing procurement regulations a new schedule listing the international agreements signed by the UK. It will be limited to UK trade agreements with countries that had a preceding agreement with the EU before exit day. Of the agreements in effect, those with substantive procurement provisions and to be listed in the schedule are with Albania, the Andean countries, Canada, the CARIFORUM states—the Caribbean Forum of African, Caribbean and Pacific States—central America, Chile, Georgia, Israel, Japan, Kosovo, Mexico, Moldova, North Macedonia, the Republic of Korea, Serbia, Singapore, the Swiss Confederation, Ukraine and Vietnam. This instrument is uncontroversial, each of those agreements having already been scrutinised via the procedure set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

Furthermore, parliamentary reports have voluntarily been laid alongside each continuity trade agreement. They explained our approach to delivering continuity with each partner as the UK left the EU. If we have made any significant changes to the trade-related provisions of our existing agreements through entering into the new ones, we have explained those in the reports.

Further affirmative statutory instruments will need to be laid, using the powers in section 2 of the Trade Act, each time that the UK signs a new trade agreement with a third country, or any of the agreements mentioned here are updated, in order to give them legal effect. Future trade agreements with countries where there was no free trade agreement with the EU before exit day—that could include Australia and New Zealand—are not covered in the Trade Act and would require separate legislation.

I commend this instrument to the Committee.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful to the Minister for her opening remarks on why we are using this measure to ensure continuity of procurement as we now trade independently of the EU.

Public procurement is so much more than just buying the best products for the best price. It is intimately connected to social value, to supporting our pandemic recovery, to international human and labour rights, to environmental standards and to delivering quality public services at home in the public interest and free from mandatory marketisation and outsourcing. As the Minister said, it is also crucial in relation to access for UK business to markets around the world.

The past year has served as a reminder of the critical importance of public procurement and of strong procurement regulations. In the face of an unprecedented global crisis, we have witnessed a global scramble for finite resources such as personal protective equipment; in their attempt to meet the sudden demand, this Government have pursued a procurement strategy that has wasted millions of pounds on poor-quality products and raised serious concerns about transparency and cronyism. It is therefore so important that we learn our lessons and ensure that public procurement is done correctly. For that reason, I recognise that this is an important statutory instrument to provide both businesses and consumers with continuity and certainty as we leave the EU, and to prevent legal challenges from being brought against us at the WTO by third countries.

I met businesses in my constituency last year in the run-up to Brexit—to leaving the EU—and many had actually begun to liquidate their businesses due to the uncertainty caused by the lack of a trade deal with the EU at that time. It is more important still, given how catastrophic the four-week delay to the ending of restrictions will be for many businesses, that we endorse and support continuity. To support businesses and help provide that all-important continuity, Labour will not oppose the motion. However, I have five questions for the Minister and I would be grateful for clarity.

First, why are the regulations only coming in now? The powers under the Trade Act 2021 have just commenced, but could the instrument have been passed before the respective trade deals were ratified, in the previous parliamentary Session? We are now five years since the referendum vote.

Secondly, in what form will the separate legislation required for trade agreements with countries that did not have an agreement in place with the EU before exit day be brought forward? Can we expect further statutory instruments or will we be given the opportunity to debate the legislation on the Floor of the House?

I and many other colleagues have been simply astonished and concerned by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 process used thus far to roll over trade agreements without agreement from the House. We have felt disempowered as MPs to scrutinise important trade agreements—a point I made in this very room during debates on the Trade Bill Committee.

Given the critical importance of procurement to public life, I would hope procurement arrangements agreed with nations in the future would be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny on the Floor of the House. Only this week we have seen another major free trade agreement, with Australia, without any parliamentary scrutiny. Will a Minister be coming to the House to make a statement on that? We have learned more about that deal from the Australian Government briefing their press than from our Government telling Parliament.

Thirdly, will the Minister be taking steps to ensure that any future trade deals are rooted in the “Transforming public procurement” Green Paper? The Trade Justice Movement and a number of trade unions are quite critical of World Trade Organisation rules on public procurement because they make it harder for Governments to regulate in the democratic interest and are designed to force developing countries to hire western multinationals, potentially at the expense of domestic providers, so undermining our own aid agreements. It is therefore important that we develop a UK social partnership approach to procurement, based on the recognition and enforcement of international, regional and local labour, social and environmental standards and goals, including transparent and sustainable global supply chains and fair and transparent artificial intelligence and digital technology practices in public services. Public service workers will be central to that transformative recovery process—that will be building back better.

Fourthly, as the Minister is no doubt aware, we cannot separate international procurement and labour and human rights, particularly in a global supply chain. For instance, the Minister may have seen reports that £150 million of personal protective equipment was procured during the pandemic from Chinese firms linked to Uyghur human rights abuses. There are similar concerns about environmental standards in the supply chain.

As the UK begins to shape its procurement framework and trade policy post Brexit, can the Minister assure me that safeguarding human and labour rights in supply chains will always take priority over purely economic imperatives? Will she, for instance, consider including mechanisms such as a new corporate “failure to prevent” regulation based on human rights and due diligence for all goods and services, and incorporating joint and several liability?

Fifthly and finally, as we move forward and begin pursuing international trade agreements with countries not already trading with the EU, will the Minister tell us how our approach to procurement will diverge from EU regulations? If so, will those differences be published and made clear? Will the Minister commit to ensuring that any divergence in public policy will be subject to an impact assessment, as these regulations are not?

Labour will not oppose the draft regulations today, but I would be most grateful to the Minister for her response on the points I have made, today or in writing.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments. I am glad she agrees with us on the importance of social value in procurement. She mentioned some of the challenges we faced in procuring PPE during the crisis. I set out in Westminster Hall in quite some detail some of the challenges. I was trying to be as transparent as possible about those challenges, so that we can understand the true lessons rather than go on a wild goose chase about cronyism, which, from what I understand about how things were operating, is a misplaced concern.

I agree very much that we need a better system for procurement, and we are introducing one. We have a very ambitious Green Paper, which she will have seen, and the relevant Bill was introduced in the Queen’s Speech. We have a very good free trade agreement with the EU, so I hope that her businesses are now benefiting from that.

The reason why the draft regulations are introduced today is that the provisions were covered by other legislation, but that expires at the end of the year. That is why we have introduced this statutory instrument now that the Trade Act has had Royal Assent.

Legislation and scrutiny of new trade agreements will take place on the Floor of House. That will be led by my trade colleagues rather than the Cabinet Office. We will make sure that any new procurement regime that we put forward will be compliant with WTO rules. In having our own seat at the table now, separate from the EU, we will have our own unique voice on some of the debates about public procurement. I am sure that it will be an area where we will make our voice heard.

The hon. Lady mentioned digital. We are very keen to work with states such as Singapore and Australia to advance the digital agenda, which has stalled in recent years.

She mentioned some very important issues on supply chains and social value. There is a lot we want to try to do in this area, including making sure that we are procuring with firms that are employing apprentices, taking on disabled employees and adhering to high environmental standards. The hon. Lady mentioned human rights and made a particular suggestion. I am happy to take that away and look into it if she would like to write to me in further detail.

I hope that colleagues will join me in supporting the draft regulations, which I commend to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.